Stories of the front line: The people, groups and businesses making a difference

Over the last three months, we’ve told you some of their stories through our series, Front-line Heroes. Each day, we featured a person, a group or an organization in the GTA making a difference in their own way.

Over the past 3 months, CBC Toronto has introduced a new face each day in our Front-line Heroes series

Front-line Heroes is a CBC Toronto series giving a shout-out to workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic across the GTA. (CBC News)

We've lost a lot as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic — lives, livelihoods, loved ones.

But despite all the virus has taken, many people are still finding a way to give.

Over the last three months, we've told you some of their stories through our series, Front-line Heroes. Each day, we featured a person, a group or an organization in the GTA making a difference in their own way — whether it's picking up groceries, writing letters to isolated seniors or finding ways to create much needed medical supplies.

Of course, many features focused on the health-care heroes who've pulled on their masks, shields and gloves, sacrificing their own safety to care for complete strangers.

As our final instalment to the series Friday, we featured Dr. Eileen de Villa — Toronto's medical officer of health — whose calm demeanour, practical advice and colourful scarves continue to help residents get through tough times.

Read on to learn more about the other heroes featured this week, including physiotherapists, an environmental services attendant and a wig salon manager, all contributing to their workplaces in new ways.

If you'd like to read more about the Front-line Heroes featured as part of this series, visit our Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages.

Dr. Eileen de Villa

WATCH: Our Toronto host Marivel Taruc speaks with Dr. Eileen de Villa about what it's like to lead the country's largest city through a never-before-seen threat.

Dr. Eileen de Villa describes the strategy she's taken to keep Torontonians safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the personal toll the crisis has taken on her life. 3:23

Dr. Eileen de Villa continues to lead Toronto through the COVID-19 pandemic, which at times, comes at a personal cost.

"There was a period of time during which I was not going home. It was just frankly too much," says de Villa, who is also a mom to three teenage boys.

"My husband is a physician and continues to work in health-care environments, so we wanted to make sure that we were protecting ourselves … This is a big obligation I took on, and I do take my responsibility to the three million residents of Toronto extremely seriously."

Mayor John Tory describes de Villa as a true professional who's the first to give credit to her team.

"She is, to me, the original kind of iron fist in the velvet glove," he says. 

"She is incredibly collegial. She will compromise, but without compromising her principles as a medical professional … She is a front-line hero for me, and I'm sure for the people of the city of Toronto and for the people of Canada in dealing with this pandemic."

Evan Lee, Emily Speelziek, Mirela Savic and Laura Chiriac

Evan Lee and Emily Speelziek work in the orthopedic and amputee rehabilitation unit at Providence Healthcare. (Submitted by Caroline Monteiro)

Patients at Providence Healthcare — a Scarborough facility specializing in rehabilitation —  who require orthopedic and amputee rehabilitation can still access specialized services even if they have COVID-19.

Emily Speelziek, an occupational therapist, and Evan Lee, a physiotherapist, helped to create the new unit, says Caroline Monteiro, patient-care manager at Providence Healthcare.

"They not only bring their expertise but also their outgoing personalities to their patient therapy sessions," she says..

Laura Chiriac, left, and Mirela Savic were among the first health-care staff at Providence Healthcare to volunteer to work in a COVID-19 recovery pod for orthopedic and amputee patients. (Submitted by Caroline Monteiro)

Monteiro also wanted to recognize Mirela Savic, a registered practical nurse, and Laura Chiriac, a registered nurse, both of whom were among the first to volunteer to work in the unit.

"When I think of professionalism, flexibility, and accountability these two amazing nurses come to mind."

Karen de Prinse

Karen de Prinse has worked in health care for decades, and she's now created more than 800 masks to help keep her neighbours safe. (Submitted by Karen de Prinse)

Nurse Karen de Prinse has sewn more than 800 masks to give out for free to the Guildwood neighbourhood and anyone who knocks on her door.

She has worked in health care for more than 35 years, including with the Toronto Police community crisis team, an intensive care unit, a burn unit and in mental health and addictions.

She has used her quilting skills to help keep her neighbours safe, her friend Bill O'Leary says.

She also packages each mask with safety instructions.

"Karen is a hero who cares deeply for the health and well-being of others. My hope is that she will be recognized for her efforts and provide the broader community with the example that we're in this together," he said.

Audrey Lawrie

Audrey Lawrie is an environmental-services attendant at Markham Stouffville Hospital. (Submitted by Jada Myers)

Staff at Markham Stouffville Hospital call Audrey Lawrie one of most dedicated, caring people you'll ever meet.

Lawrie is an environmental services attendant at the hospital. 

Jada Myers — a nurse in the hospital's COVID-19 assessment centre — says Lawrie "doesn't sit down or stop … She will go and help other units if they are in need and continue to work her full shift with us. We couldn't function without her. The place is so clean and cared for because of her."

Lawrie will also bake for the staff, bring in flowers on special occasions and lend a hand whenever possible, Myers says.

"I treat the hospital as if it's my home," Lawrie says. 

Laurie Tucker

As a wig specialist at Princess Margaret Hospital, Laurie Tucker helps men and women regain their confidence after losing their hair due to cancer therapy.

Laurie Tucker is a wig specialist at Princess Margaret Hospital. The salon is closed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, so she's now helping the hospital in new ways. 1:44

It's a job she's proudly done for 16 years, but with the COVID-19 pandemic closing down the salon, she's shifted to helping the hospital in new ways.

Tucker is now screening potential patients, aiding staff and making patients feel comfortable when they arrive.

When those long days are done, Tucker goes home to ensure the many seniors in her building are taken care of. 

Each week, she drops them off groceries, medication and even magazines to stay entertained.

Dave and Liz Ashby live one floor above Tucker. In an email, they say: "Laurie keeps an eye on all of us … She calls us 'the elderberries,' and her visits and phone calls are one of the main elements in keeping us sane during this crisis."

'Facing Your Fears' team

The 'Facing Your Fears' team is made up of a group of psychologists and psychology interns. (Submitted by Martha Pilkington)

Psychologists and psychology interns at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital are ensuring children with diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder are supported during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The hospital runs a program called "Facing Your Fears," which helps children between eight and 12 who are experiencing significant symptoms of anxiety.

A group of children had their 14-week session cut short when the program was cancelled as a result of the pandemic.

But psychologists Abbie Solish, Brianne Drouillard, Jonathan Leef, Mandy Fulton and their interns, Azin Taheri and Monica O'Neill, found a way to keep the program going.

"Recognizing an even greater need to have services for children with anxiety during this time, the staff resumed the groups using Zoom technology," says Martha Pilkington, ambulatory services operations manager at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital. 

"All of the original nine families were very eager to restart their sessions and the new format has gone very well."

Jessica Valleau

Jessica Valleau is a registered nurse with the St. George Care Community. (Submitted by Thea Scrimger)

For Jessica Valleau, the safety of her residents always comes first, says her long-time friend Thea Scrimger.

Valleau is a registered nurse at St. George Care Community, a nursing home in Toronto. Valleau has supported the residents there for several years and is now helping the home fight COVID-19, says Scrimger.

"Since the pandemic began in March, Jessica has remained isolated from friends and family … [She] prioritizes the health of her patients above all else."

Scrimger wanted to thank both her friend and all other front-line workers for putting themselves at risk to help support their communities.

"For Jessica, it has been 11 lonely weeks. Eleven weeks of long shifts and late-night phone calls. I'd like to take this moment to acknowledge her hard work, dedication, and tenacity."